Intro to Sociology classes are frequently the first and only contact many students will have with sociology, which also makes Intro textbooks an important platform for public sociology engagement. In this Dialogues series, we interviewed four authors of Intro to Sociology textbooks and asked them to explore how their textbooks can facilitate students’ first encounter with sociology while also promoting the reflection and practice of public sociology. In this second interview, we spoke to Dr. Shamus Khan, one of the editors of A Sociology Experiment, an online Intro to Sociology textbook published by CritReview. Check the first interview for this series here.

First Publics: Tell us about your motivation to write and edit an Intro to Sociology textbook. What were your goals and what do you hope the textbook will accomplish?

Shamus Khan: It’s hard for me to just describe it as my goals because I did this project with Pat Sharkey and Gwen Sharp. Although Pat Sharkey and I spearheaded the initial design, Gwen Sharp was really key to execution, which is the hardest part. Ideas are easy, execution is hard. Our idea was that textbooks had variable quality and were too expensive. They were driven primarily by a profit motive, owned, designed and operated by large corporations that didn’t have the interests of students or faculty at heart. For students, we wanted to prioritize providing the highest quality presentation up-to-date with the latest research; it was also essential to be truly financially accessible. For faculty, we knew we had to provide a low barrier to entry, particularly for faculty who are teaching pretty considerable loads. You know, making sure that things like lecture slides, exercises, everything was provided with a textbook. That ended up being half of the work: half of it is writing the chapter, and then half of it is producing the things for faculty to use. 

Pat and I started with this idea that textbooks cost a hundred dollars, of which 90 go to the publisher in a variety of ways, and that students really get the short end of the stick on that. So we created a book that had leading people in the field and was financially accessible to students ($1/chapter). Another element that was really important was that there needed to be a diverse group of scholars writing it. There’s a lot of white people who write textbooks. There are a lot of men who write textbooks. We were pretty deliberate in the people we brought to the project. If you look at A Sociology Experiment and its authors, it is a much more diverse group of authors overall than what you typically get. We have a bunch of people who are not like me and Pat: people who teach at community colleges and people who teach at very small regional state institutions. That was extremely important to us as part of the project as well, to reflect excellence across a range of places where excellence didn’t just mean status. 

First Publics: How widely has the textbook been used? Do you have a sense of its impact in any way? 

Shamus Khan: I think we serve about 30,000 students a year, maybe more. We also have a commitment to making it free if it needs to be. If students can’t afford it, they can just ask us, and we give it to them. We have people who teach it throughout a range of penal institutions. So, it is taught to incarcerated people. It’s free – we don’t charge for that. 

The other idea behind it was also to make the textbook modular so that people only pay for what they use. Often textbooks will have lots of chapters, which increases the cost overall. But students might only read five of the twenty chapters in a textbook. And so three-quarters of what they’re paying for is a resource they don’t use. We find that, on average, courses teach seven chapters of our book. So that means that, for students, the textbook costs $7. That’s an extremely low price. We are for profit, but we don’t make any money. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re a nonprofit enterprise. Pat and I own the company. But we have a really strong commitment to paying our authors. The authors receive a third of the royalties, which is a much higher royalty rate than any other. In other publishers, if you can get 12 percent, you’re doing pretty well. We pay 33 percent of the royalties to the authors. It is a textbook by sociologists for sociologists rather than by a huge publisher for a huge publisher. 

First Publics: How do you perceive textbooks in general, and your textbook specifically, are stimulating or promoting the practice of public sociology? Do you think that this is something that can be done through textbooks? If so, how? 

Shamus Khan: I think it is absolutely something that can be done through textbooks. In general, sociologists in R1 institutions can be pretty dismissive of textbooks. But I think we need to remember that this is how most people are introduced to sociology, right? If we can create a textbook like the one we did, that is useful, that is helpful for the contingent faculty that we’re producing all the time to reduce their workloads and actually give them resources that are helpful for them. You can buy a physical version of our textbook, but it’s pretty much a totally online resource. I also think that textbooks can respond very quickly to what’s happening in the world in a way that scholarship can’t. We can integrate into our textbooks, and we’re going to, what’s happening in Israel right now and Palestine, and throughout the Middle East. If I were to write an article on that, it wouldn’t come out for two years, right? With online resources, we can be highly responsive and relevant to young people in a way that reflects the kind of immediacy of sociology while making sense of the present. When we did our market analysis, we found out that hundreds and hundreds of thousands of sociology textbooks are sold every year. The most successful sociology book, like a monograph, does not sell anywhere near as many copies as the total amount of textbooks sold. Most people won’t become professional sociologists, but textbooks can introduce tens of millions of people to the core ideas of sociology. So we have some responsibility to do it well and to do it in ways that represent the kinds of voices and perspectives that we value. 

First Publics: Could you tell us some of the political and practical challenges that come with writing textbooks, particularly when you use public sociology as part of the goal? This could be anything from resources, time, class size, political context, or even the publishing industry, which you’ve talked about a little bit.  How have you all tried to address some of these challenges?

Shamus Khan: I don’t know if I would count this as a political challenge, but Gwen has been enormously valuable for the enterprise as an editor because Gwen has really highlighted the importance of accessibility of the textbook for students with different learning needs and making sure that the assessments and the structure, and all kinds of things meet students with a range of needs. Now, we can’t do it fully because of the specific nature of some students’ needs. But being attentive to that, I think, is enormously important, especially in contexts with students with a wide range of learning abilities. Those sets of needs are gonna need to be met by the things that you produce. I think it’s very important for us to do that. 

On the other hand, we made a decision that we are not really appropriate for high schools. Because we can’t satisfy the different regional textbook requirements for the State of Texas or for Florida, or for anything like that. I think in sociology, this isn’t as big of a concern, but it is in other areas. We are launching a second textbook in political science, for example. We have a soft launch this semester, and it’s fully launching next semester. The big market for political science is high schools, not college. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to be in high schools because we just can’t meet the learning objectives and constraints that are put on by various boards of education, and neither would we want to. If we wouldn’t teach materials in ways that erased particular histories or people, we wouldn’t publish a textbook that did the same thing. Pat and I are the publishers, so we wouldn’t publish a textbook that refused to have critical race theory in it, or that didn’t discuss queer people, or that was engaging in trans erasure. This is just something we would not be willing to do. I think in other contexts, it’s really important to think about these things because, basically, the Texas Board of Education has an oversized impact on the content of history textbooks across the country. And textbooks can and do serve dual purposes, in college and high school. So when they do it for high schools, they influence what people learn in college, especially in community colleges where textbooks serve as the foundation for what students will be reading, for very good reasons. I think those concerns are super important as political concerns. 

We started this years ago, and you know, inflation is a thing. We’re still at a dollar and we’re not driving up the price. We can never compete with the rest of the textbooks because we don’t have a marketing team. We have one employee who works 15 hours a week.  So, you put that up against Sage, Elsiver, and Pearson, they have teams of people going door to door getting people to teach their resources. We are a very, very scrappy group of people. We don’t have the resources to make major transformations. We’re financially solvent, we pay our employee well above a living wage and we do right by our authors. Whereas, authors of major textbooks from large publishers can make orders of magnitude more money because of what they are charging students. I don’t begrudge the authors but the publishers are pretty profoundly irresponsible, I think because their profits are being extracted from students who are more likely to be low income and at less-elite institutions. 

Most people won’t become professional sociologists, but textbooks can introduce tens of millions of people to the core ideas of sociology. So we have some responsibility to do it well and to do it in ways that represent the kinds of voices and perspectives that we value.

– Shamus Khan

First Publics: You touched on making textbooks more financially accessible, but in what other ways do you perceive your current textbook being inclusive and accessible to different types of publics and people with different backgrounds and experiences?

Shamus Khan: We have a range of authors, many women, more than half of our authors are women. We have several Black faculty who have written chapters for us. We have people across a range of backgrounds. So, you know, someone who teaches in the Houston community college system, or who is at SUNY New Paltz. They’ve written incredible chapters. I think it’s very important that those perspectives, and also people who have actually taught the end users of these books, are present in the textbook. One of the editors of the book, Gwen Sharp, she’s at Nevada State College. She herself is a first-generation college student from Oklahoma. To her, it’s incredibly important to teach a largely first-generation, diverse student body. As the final editor of every chapter, she’s able to infuse a deep understanding of what it means to teach students who are often the students who are encountering textbooks. I think that’s super valuable. 

Our authors are experts in the field that they’re writing on. What ends up happening in most textbooks is that they have one author who writes an initial version of a textbook, then, the publisher hires out the edits to other people, and these edits get approved over time. In our case, we are a pain in the neck to our authors every year because they have to update their materials and we ask them to do so with the newest research in mind.  We do that so that sociology isn’t introduced to some students through the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” which has lived in a textbook unquestioned for decades, for example, and to other students through more recent American Sociological Review papers. It’s helpful that the chapter on crime has as its author my co-owner and editor, Patrick Sharkey, who is one of the leading people producing information about crime, right? And for Pat to be joined by Angela Barian, who is an award-winning teacher from a small regional college in the midwest and by Bryan L Sykes, another leading sociologist. They combine a diversity of experience and perspectives that is exceptionally powerful. We ended up with a textbook that’s very responsive to what has happened to the crime rate since 2020, and we can integrate that into the overall narrative arc of our materials. I feel that it helps bring both perspectives  – recognizing the needs of students as well as bringing them cutting-edge research in a unique and invaluable way. 

First Publics: Would you like to expand on anything or share anything else?

Shamus Khan: We have a wide range of supplemental materials. During COVID, I gave over 50 lectures on the book so that if teachers wanted to flip their classroom and not have to lecture on Zoom but, instead just run a discussion section, they could have me lecture their course from the textbook and then they could run a discussion section. I did this basically in August of 2020. It was online for people in September of 2020 for all of these chapters. And I think it’s still useful to this day. 

Another thing we did during COVID was to create a podcast because we thought students might be missing out on student conversation. We had someone create a podcast for us, where they interviewed the author of each chapter and then brought in students who were taking the course at that time. I was basically a 30-minute discussion section where the authors were asked questions about the chapter, and then students were brought in to be part of the discussion so if you wanted additional materials, that was a valuable resource. I think having a student-centered approach where you really recognize what it is to be a student and some of the challenges during that time was really important. 

Those lectures have nearly 70,000 views. They’ve been used as a resource for a lot of folks who were learning about education or family or race authenticity, gender, and sexuality, for example. It wasn’t easy, right? Each of those lectures is 30 minutes, and I made close to 50 of them divided into small sections. But the aim is to be really publicly minded in how it is that we’re doing this kind of work. And you know, for someone like me, with a low teaching load, a lot of financial support from institutions, and a research account, this was something I thought valuable that I could do. 

Also during COVID, I created an online school for a time period, and the school was reaching thousands of kids. That was a way where kids who were stuck at home could get a different kind of encounter. I taught this book, and people like Ruha Benjamin, the author, doing a diverse children’s storybook hour. I think stuff like this is an important part of our public work as scholars. It infuses widely through the logic of the textbook, which is like “How are you socially responsible?” and “How do you take your public platform seriously?” These resources, like the videos, aren’t sophisticated, it’s me on Zoom recorded, very lightly edited. But they’re also free, they are not behind a paywall. You don’t need to have registered with our company. Nothing like that. There is a way that we, as a community of scholars, can do stuff like this that can be valuable to our colleagues who have very different kinds of jobs than we have. And to our students, who I don’t think we should treat in extractive ways, and to be blunt, I think most textbooks treat students in extractive ways. 

It’s also why we’re expanding to political science, following the same model. It’s the most diverse group of political scientists that has ever done a textbook. And, in our view, it is really high quality. I don’t know if we’ll grow beyond this. But we have a vision that maybe we, as public-minded scholars, can reclaim the textbook industry and do it in a way that’s really responsible.

Shamus Khan is Willard Thorp professor of sociology and American Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of over 100 articles, books, and essays, including Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, and Sexual Citizens: Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus (with Jennifer Hirsch), one of NPR’s best books of 2020. He writes regularly in the New York Times and Washington Post. He has been awarded Columbia University’s highest teaching honor, the Presidential Teaching Award (2016), and the Zetterberg Prize from the Upsala University for “the best sociologist under 40” (2018).